Friday, April 22, 2011

The Front Range

View of Denver and the Rockies to the west of Cherry Creek Reservoir
Our second Colorado state park was Cherry Creek which we chose for its proximity to Aurora where Chris’ college friend, “Tommy D” lives. He came to our campsite at Cherry Creek for dinner and shared an awesome salad and pie. He also charmed Lily with his deep voice and playful games.
Dinner at our campsite with Tommy D
Denver was a surprise to me because I have idealized Colorado as a foothills “main street” community (probably similar to my “NJ is the armpit of America” childhood stereotype) rather than another sprawling city with gigantic single-family home suburbs and prolific pavement. Through NPR news I learned about the suffering schools in Colorado and the abundant non-native residents with degrees. In other words, the state is a haven for educated, affluent transplants and does not invest a lot in the education of its locals. As unexpected as this revelation was, I did expect to be awed by the geography and that certainly was the case when Tommy D took us to Red Rocks Park
The top row and southern shiprock of Red Rocks Amphitheater
What an incredible feat of design and construction. Between two huge ship rocks of red layered sediment, is an impressive amphitheater that can seat 20,000! It overlooks the city and miles of prairie beyond. We learned from Tom that Denver used to be desert prairie the same way Phoenix used to be just desert. The majority of the trees (except those along rivers) in Denver were planted and wouldn’t exist there but for humans. Wouldn’t it be great if it were stylish in Colorado to have a prairie grass lawn? We also learned about Denver’s system of “stealing” water from the western slope of the Rockies…a common theme out here where we want to live in areas that do not have the water to support our habits. We enjoyed a great lunch out with Tommy D then said goodbye, much to Lily's disappointment, as she just loved meeting him!
Chris takes our picture from outside the camper...Lily looks huge in the sling now!
Lily is getting heavy. I have no gauge except my surprise each morning upon picking her up. I love how she wakes up in a different fashion every day, sometimes tugging on the sheets and rousing me, sometimes yawning and squeaking, sometimes grunting for some nummy-nums as Nana calls it (milk). She is amazing in the way her natural curiosity makes her want to touch and taste everything she sees. It’s a real challenge to prevent a temptation to grab something like…paper or a tea mug and it’s also fun to let her try out the potato masher and whisk. She can now drink from her sippy cup although holding it and drinking have not occurred simultaneously yet. She nearly leaps from our arms trying to grab things and she bounces her legs and flails her arms when she gets excited. She waves back at people when they say hi and smiles as usual. We have also noticed a recent trend toward whining or crying when she can’t have what she’d like. All we can do is encourage her to use her sign language for ‘please’ and to be ‘gentle’ when she grabs at our face or my hair.
Our Cherry Creek campsite
Somehow we reserved, online, one of the nicest sites at Cherry Creek. Nestled into a corner of one of the loops, we had woods nearly all around us. The most awesome benefit of this locale revealed itself the evening that Tommy D came over for dinner. He saw a large bird land on a tree limb not far from the camper. After a close look I was sure it was an owl. Over the next three days we saw our Great Horned neighbor on several occasions the closest of which was on a rainy evening at dusk. He/She perched on a teeny branch off a tree about twenty feet from our bedroom window for about twenty minutes. 
Tough to spot, look just to the left of the big tree trunk
We also saw Red Shouldered Hawks, Mule Deer and Magpies along with White Pelicans on the reservoir. Lily and I took about a five-mile walk on some of the paved paths in the park one day. We were passed at high speed by several road bikes that use the path for transport, training, and recreation. I was definitely in the minority being on foot. I did chat with a man in a recumbent tricycle who was all too happy to share about his love for his vehicle. I was curious whether he got a sore neck given the reclined position…he had adjusted it to be comfy for him and so did not get sore.
Lily naps in the stroller as the bikes whizz by
It has been refreshing to be in the rain. I say this mainly because of the weather we’re used to in April which is cloudy, rainy, windy and cold. Believe it or not, Jersey family and friends, I missed the rain. I appreciate it all the more now since being in places where it rains nearly never. It may seem odd but I’m grateful that my family (parents, grandparents, great grandparents, etc) lived in areas where water is not as much of an issue. So many people are subject to the choices their parents make and even feel they have to escape that life to make their own. We are blessed to have been given solid ground and safe surroundings in which to grow up and grow out of if we choose. What a gift.


After writing the last entry I realized I had forgotten a couple thoughts and stories from our trip between Arizona and Colorado…I write these down so you can read but also so we can remember.

Upon arriving in our Flagstaff campsite, I noticed a note on the ground near the trashcan. “Have your wife drive this thing until you learn how in a parking lot”. One can only assume this was from a disgruntled neighbor to the previous inhabitant of our site.

While staying in Gallup, New Mexico we hoped to visit one of Chris’ former Arizona colleagues, Sister Christie, who now lives at a retreat house and teaches within or very near a large reservation in that area. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see her but we did get to experience some serious wind. This was not as bad as the wind at Catalina in Tucson (where the wind actually pushed our slideout bed back in about four inches!) but we did not go outside at that campground until we left in the morning.

We also missed out on meeting old family friends whom I’ve never met. The Weavers are friends with my dad’s parents and live in Grants, New Mexico. Mom and Dad went cross-country in a Mustang and a tent camper for their honeymoon and visited the Weavers who, I learned on the phone, are incredibly nice. Mom suggested I call them and meet up if possible. Given the timing of some appointments our paths didn’t cross but I really enjoyed speaking with both Hope and Harry on the phone.

While staying in Santa Fe we woke up one morning, had breakfast and looked out the window to see what looked like a stray dog. No collar, no tags, no leash, no owner in sight. It came back through our campsite and I noticed an impressive set of teats! I then assumed she must be a wild dog looking for some chow for her pups. Needless to say we stayed inside until she headed out. We later learned that she actually belonged to the house across the main road and came to the campground on frequent scavenging trips. We were reminded that we’re in the “wild west” where for the most part you can do what you want with your property. If you want to run your fencing retail store out of your garage which is next to your crowded paddock of horses which are napping amongst numerous rusting old tractors, suit yourself!

A momentous event occurred while we were in Santa Fe: Milo Blankenmaus was born! Nick and Sharon are friends we met while living down the street from them in the farmhouse. We swapped garden tools along with many meals and have really grown along with them in the couple years of our friendship. We are so happy for them and it was so hard to contain my excitement when Sharon called from the hospital to say she had birthed Milo on the 14th!
The handsome Milo
One last Santa Fe tale:
A warning to anyone who thinks it might be a good idea to try tossing your trash out from the car on the way out of a campground. A couple tried this and cut it a bit short causing their fifth-wheel trailer to get hung up on the dumpster. Chris witnessed nearly the entire staff rallying to help the shortcutter get out of his predicament.

Chris has been reading the works of Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, for many years now and has been reading Rohr’s Lenten work called Wondrous Encounters during this Lent. Rohr stresses throughout his works the importance of accepting and embracing the “both and” mentality. Rather than “this or that” “either or” he explains we need to love, for example, both our strengths and our weaknesses. This has been relevant to my views on the way our country has designed its infrastructure for energy, travel, and “waste”. We are BOTH reaping the benefits of the system AND disappointed in it and that’s okay. A good reminder for so many facets of life. Don’t throw out the whole thing because part of it stinks. This has also been especially relevant as I learn more about our political system and its partisan nature. I hope we can work toward more of a ‘both and’ mentality instead of black and white thinking which limits and often hurts so many.

We saw antelope along the highway in northern New Mexico. It seems like they’re the whitetail deer of the desert plains.

I-25 is dotted with signs for elk, bear, antelope, and dust storms. We're not in New Jersey anymore.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Climb to Colorado

Much of this drive was desert prairie along old route 66
After a week-long delay for weather we left Tempe, Arizona and instead of hopping back on I-10 West we headed north for Flagstaff and began the long, slow journey home. It had been dangerously windy and snowing in northern Arizona and western New Mexico so we held out in sunny Tempe until Monday April 11.

Lookout after rising out of Phoenix
This part of the trip was the reverse of how we started…when we left New Jersey, we fast forwarded the seasons to what felt like spring in Florida. Now it feels as though we rewound from summer back to spring again! Climbing out of the Phoenix area was refreshing to say the least. We left behind the city sprawl and at the peak of the climb we leveled out on high grassland. I never would have guessed that just above the cactus-filled desert would be mountain prairie! We saw our first snowcapped mountains on the approach to Flagstaff and actually saw some roadside snow and runoff which was uplifting after seeing so little natural water for so long.
Lily enjoying Daddy's drawstring for breakfast
Our Flagstaff campground was thick with pine trees and there were iris greens working their way up from the dirt. The campground sat at the base of an incredibly steep mountain covered in coniferous trees and huge rock faces with a meadow at the base. I’m continually shocked to see elements of our current energy system at work and Flagstaff was no exception. Seemingly right in the middle of town was a small mountain being mined (or ripped apart as it appeared). It made me wonder who decided it was a good idea to flatten one of the most beautiful elements of the town. The answer that keeps coming to me when I ask these kinds of questions is more often than not: people who want to make money. We saw power plants in the middle of the desert with water being piped in from who knows where, coal trains with fifty or more cars, and endless miles of power lines and high tension wires crisscrossing the landscape. It is sad to me to hear on NPR that we have been pumping carcinogenic liquid into the earth in order to extract natural gas…again, who ever thought that would be a good idea?
Approaching Flagstaff...snow!
Chris and I are implicit in the use of fossil fuels, especially during these few months of travel. But, we have been lit up with a renewed gratitude for the ability and desire to really do it differently. We are grateful that New Jersey doesn’t have the water rights issues that Santa Fe and Denver have. People can’t even set up a rainwater collection system in their own yard because they don’t “own” the water. We are grateful we can probably afford to use solar on our future home. We are grateful for the incredibly fertile soil in Hunterdon County that allows us to garden and compost so readily. We are grateful for the tall trees that shelter us from the winds and the smoothed over hills that provide great runoff to streams and rivers. These things don’t exist everywhere and it’s so easy to take them for granted.
Flagstaff campground scenery
We spent one night each in Flagstaff, AZ and Gallup, NM (didn’t see much there but the wind) and settled in for four nights just eight miles east of Santa Fe, NM. Here we stayed in a woodsy hillside campground shaded by junipers and other evergreens. The roads were dust though which made it hard to walk around if it was windy. Chris took the truck to a local place for service and learned that Santa Fe is really a progressive little city in many ways. There was no question when he asked the mechanic about restaurants that serve local and organic. He shared a few options and we learned about a co-op grocery where Chris picked up some necessities and was enlivened by the sincere efforts of the people to value local business, food and sustainable practices. There is no “downtown” Santa Fe with high-rises and a business district…which was also refreshing. We ended up having lunch at Vinaigrette and two dinners at Real Food Nation. We took a short walk around the historic district and its narrow streets and center plaza area. Native Americans from nearby reservations (I assume) had their jewelry and trinkets laid out for sale on blankets along the sidewalk of the Palace of the Governors.
A Painted Desert rock formation
We drove through a few reservations on our way to Colorado and were so struck by the apparent poverty and sadness in those areas. They are peppered with trailer homes and broken down cars along with roadside trading posts touting ‘free petrified wood’ and ‘authentic Indian blankets and pottery’.  I was also so struck by the landscape of the Painted Desert and the Rocky Mountains. There are endless awesome rock formations ranging from choppy black ground level rock deposits to enormous liquid-like red mountain rocks with pits carved out by the wind and natural caves below where native people lived at one time. How incredible that people could survive with “so little” and now we feel we need so much (myself included). Emerging from Raton Pass at 7, 800 feet we got our first glimpse of the Rockies and it was breathtaking. We chose two state parks for our time in Colorado and the first was Lathrop. We got a campsite and arranged the camper so our bedroom window faced the two Spanish Peaks which rise to twelve and thirteen thousand feet. It’s been a month since Catalina so the moon is rounding out again and we enjoyed a night with our blinds up because we had no nearby neighbors! We would have enjoyed exploring the park more but planned on one night so headed north toward Denver and its impressive mountains. More on that in the next entry!
The Spanish Peaks from Lathrop SP

Another beautiful full moon rise...this time at Lathrop

Especially with Easter approaching and given our usual family celebration of the holy day, we are feeling ready to be home: still enjoying all we see and learn, of course, but missing family and east coast springtime. All the best of Holy Week to all of you.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Usery & Tempe

Wildflowers, Our Usery Campsite & Pass Mountain
We moved about 1 ½ hours west to another first-come-first-serve campground in Mesa, AZ called Usery Mountain Regional Park. This was another amazing desert experience. It is so cool that the Sonoran Desert is so diverse and that we have seen so much of the life it supports. The three of us took another great hike, this time on Usery’s Wind Cave Trail that leads up to mountainside caves carved out by the wind. We made it about ¾  of the mile and a half trek up with Lily then spun around to avoid overdoing the sun and sling time. I went alone the next day all the way to the top and a little beyond which was really neat. It felt so good to feel a little burn in my legs.  I’m also developing a rockin’ sock tan.
Looking out to the Superstition Mountains
My birthday was a most excellent one. I awoke to Chris tossing a bunch of Lily’s flannel washcloths telling me to imagine they were balloons and singing “Happy Birthday” to me in bed. He presented me with a couple cards from family and one from him and Lily.  I got up and out to a yoga class at the nature center and upon returning was greeted by a lemon—my favorite—cake in the oven! I was not allowed to do dishes that day and we took a hike on one of the shorter vista trails that afternoon. We had a campfire, hotdogs, tinfoil potatoes and salad for dinner and I even enjoyed a beer fireside. We got a welcome phone call from the Donofry family (all of them at once I think!) which was awesome as we can always hear the excitement and love coming right through the phone with them. Elizabeth and Jacob had questions about Lily and we all expressed excitement about our upcoming summer plans in Ocean City, NJ. Chris and I have taken to celebrating our “birthday week” and so this was the pinnacle of a week of ‘do what you want’ treatment.
Birthday Sunset
After a week at Usery we moved west to an RV park in Tempe…no more cacti, sunset views or secluded campsite…but we had internet. This location allowed us to catch up on laundry, email, and to be closer to Whole Foods for grocery runs. We had great neighbors who lived full time in the park and were more than happy to lend a ladder or hose nozzle. We also met some pretty cool fellow full-timers from Indiana: Adam, Courtney, and their three year old girl, Milligan (Milli). Their RV was covered in a sponsor wrap and was pretty hard to ignore given its bright yellow color scheme. We enjoyed a meal at their site and joined them for their meetup picnic at a nearby park. Check out their blogs at and to learn more about their lifestyle and work on the road!
Lily Munches on Crinkle while Chris Does Sabbatical Reading
The new light rail had a stop right at our RV park so we took advantage on a number of occasions. Our first weekend, we got to see Ted again! He had a state swim meet in Mesa so we reorganized the camper to make him a bed and went to watch him one day. The three of us took the light rail a couple of stops up to Mill Avenue in the Arizona State University section of Tempe. We had dinner at a restaurant which uses local, sustainably harvested food as much as possible; then we hunted down some dessert but ended up with a disappointing frozen yogurt result. It was so great to see Ted again for this unexpected weekend visit. We also took the light rail to church one Sunday and Lily and I rode it up to Central Avenue in Phoenix one day to give Chris some quiet time at home.
Ted swims!
My reflections while living within the Phoenix sprawl are pretty judgmental and maybe a little too realistic or idealistic. I am as implicit as anyone else in these criticisms.

I took a shopping trip with Lily one day for groceries and to see about some flip flops. We were introduced to the Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe, Chandler, Scottsdale, etc culture on our drive. This seems to be a very new city area; it is laid out in a very purposeful grid and the highways are manicured with gravel and landscaping. New huge shopping centers and malls are peppered throughout. Developments in many areas have ornately landscaped entrances and tall walls around them. This is in fairly stark contrast with Tucson…I feel like, in general, Tucson is a hardworking creative kindergarten teacher who goes with the flow, and Phoenix is a high maintenance fashion model who needs everything her way.
It's hot in the desert!
First of all, humans are able to live in the desert because we have robbed others of their water, run high-tension wires hundreds of miles, and dug trenches through mountains to pipe in natural gas. We are so stuck on the automobile that we construct extensive overpasses and highways and parking lots. In the Northeast, we do many of these things and more but I’ve never looked at it this way before. It doesn’t have to be like this and after this trip, I hope to never fly in an airplane ever again. I hope to be blessed to be able to use solar power to heat my home and water. I hope to conserve water and not flush it down the toilet into a tank below ground. I hope to view my surroundings as enough and not constantly want more for myself. I hope to get back to gardening and away from the convenience foods we’ve been snacking on on the road.
Ocotillo Sunset Meal for Lily while I contemplate life in the desert
Secondly, there is not supposed to be “lawn” in the desert. But, in Phoenix, there are parks of it, development landscaping, grassy cemeteries, man-made lakes lined by lawn, and the worst offender are the seven or more golf courses. This has made me think again about why we love cold-climate grass so much; is it a status symbol? Why move to the desert if you don’t love the desert life and can’t handle dust storms? It’s spring here and beautiful desert flowers are blooming but you really don’t get to appreciate that in Phoenix because it is landscaped with many non-native species. Chris and I are still tossing around ideas about a non-lawn of myrtle or pachysandra, a large garden, and a small lawn that fends for itself against dandelions, grubs, and sun in the hottest months. Bare feet enjoy a chemical-free playplace; we don’t pollute ground water and runoff with excess nitrogen fertilizer and herbicide; we save water and time mowing! If landscaping requires chemicals and daily water, we’ve got to let it go and make room for what belongs, even if it is “ugly”!

Lily is seven months old now and can sit up (click for video) in the Boppy pillow, grab whatever is within reach, stand holding our fingers, and you name it she can chew on it. Aside from a bout of fever for Lily, and a head cold for Christopher, we’re doing great. We were delayed a week by snowy/windy weather in northern Arizona but are currently heading north and east back toward home as June is quickly approaching. We are so looking forward to visiting so many friends and family on our way back.
p.s. we joined Families on the Road!